Science In The News: A Useful Tool or Distracting Target in the Pursuit of Scientific Literacy?

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | March 31, 2009 11:55 am

Yesterday, I briefly described my contribution at the STS Conference, but I’m more interested to highlight the terrific graduate student contributions from the education panel I moderated.  Today we begin with the work of Megan Anderson from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  It’s a particularly interesting topic considering the discussion we had here last week on science literacy.

Megan’s focused on the way we interpret and evaluate science encountered in the news. She points out that traditionally research has looked at scientific and technological terms to evaluate public understanding.  (Sound familiar?)  In fact, our view of the relationship between science and society has probably been distorted by previous efforts to quantify what citizens ‘know‘ based on such analyses. So how might we improve methodology?  Megan suggests incorporating epistemic and social dimensions of scientific understanding into the evalution. In other words, we need to figure out when subjects are able to develop a general understanding of what they’re reading or viewing instead of testing their ability to memorize a series of facts or dissect a topic.  She’s looking to solve some very real challenges and I’ll be extremely interested to see where this leads.

In the mean time, do readers have your own ideas toward improving assessment?  It’s a critically important consideration given recent events leave me very concerned about the state of scientific literacy in this country…



Comments (6)

  1. Could you be a little more specific about what assessment you’re referring to in the last paragraph? I think you’re referring to assessing public understanding of a topic, but I want to be sure.

    If that’s the case, I’ve recently written a post that public understanding of science isn’t as important as creating, for lack of better term, public fandom for science.

  2. Carmichael

    I agree this is an intriguing question. Maybe if instead of multiple choice survey questionnaires, they could ask forthe take away message of a science news story. It would take more time to correct and standardize, but all thos supposed communication people with PhDs really don’t pull their weight in terms of field work usually so it would be good for them.

  3. Science is a process.

    Someone can know everything there is to know about…neuroscience, let’s say, and not know the first thing about science. I could know everything about synapses, glial cells, dopamine and the like and not have the faintest clue how to test a hypothesis. I could not then call myself a scientist, could I?

    Science news is based on reporting the products of science. Headlines are outcomes of scientific experiments, not the actual techniques used. Good science journalism includes mention of the methodology and why a particular methodology is well suited for testing a hypothesis – and that definitely helps scientific literacy – but rarely is it the focus of an article. So are we really doing science journalism? Or is it just physics or ecological journalism?

    Two particular places I’ve always touted as being good places to learn scientific thinking are House and Car Talk on NPR. When the former isn’t mocking others and the latter mocking themselves, they are amazing places to learn how to think scientifically. In both cases they come up with a diagnosis (whether it be of a car or person) and think of ways they can test it. I’m always particularly impressed with the Ray on Car Talk, that guy always knows exactly which questions to ask to get the information he needs. I always figured that’s why so many professors seem to listen to the show but, I supposed it could also be because they have more car troubles!

  4. Erasmussimo

    I agree wholeheartedly with Carmichael. Indeed, I’d suggest that testing be done with a comprehension test such as we often see in general tests. The subject reads a hypothetical science story in the news and is then asked a group of questions that probe the subject’s grasp of the content of the story. To be effective, this would have to be done with a number of different stories as well as different educational groups for comparison.

  5. Eric the Leaf

    Zen asks for more specificity and I agree. It’s really difficult to evaluate these pieces without a little more information, particularly since science assessment on a secondary education level is of great interest to me. If you are speaking about “citizens,” what exactly does that mean, how is the sample population obtained? What past research are you referring to? Where is it published?

    It is also unclear in what way you view the National Standards, since you provide links to that document. Keep in mind that the National Standards were written primarily as a tool for guiding curricula in secondary education. It was written by large committees, throwing in just about everything under the sun (and beyond) and is entirely unrealistic. A good argument can be made that, on a practical level, the National Standards have done more to thwart attempts to devise good science curricula rather than to promote them.

    At least as secondary education is concerned, there are excellent programs that do justice to both “content” and “process” learning. Unfortunately, nearly all of these programs are out of print. Modern NSF-funded science curricula are, by comparison, inferior.

  6. Then again, most science graduates from MIT don’t know that the vast majority of the mass found in trees comes from the air (see Jonathan Drori’s talk from TED). If we desire that people actually understand how stuff works, something more than education is required.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


See More

Collapse bottom bar